Q & A

 

This Q & A first appeared here in The Guardian:

 

How did you come to write The Devil’s Garden?
Some years ago, I stayed on a river station on the Amazon with some very odd people. Later, in one of the river towns, a woman told me a story about an anthropologist who disappeared in terrifying circumstances. I fused these experiences into the novel.

 

What was most difficult about it?
Writing the love story because, in this case, it was so intimate and unspoken and beneath the surface.

 

What did you most enjoy?
Writing a human being who is trying to make himself the embodiment of calm and reason and good intentions, but who is tender and wounded and emotionally volatile inside. Writing about religion and science, about the ancient and the modern, and about the clash between the individual and the powerful opposing forces that seek to determine our future. Writing about what lies hidden in the human heart.

 

How long did it take?
From first thought to finished manuscript: three years.

 

What has changed for you since it was first published?
I am now feted by heads of state. Leading designers petition me to endorse their fragrances. I no longer queue. I dine only where the Michelin stars are displayed. My phone is heavy with requests for political advice. World champions seek my counsel on matters of psychology. I am often lost to sexual exhaustion.

 

Who’s your favourite writer?
Austen for elegance and emotional choreography. Philip Roth for sheer visceral energy. Zola for character. Coetzee for resonance and the human animal. Nabokov for style. Henry James for technical excellence. Martin Amis for his sentences. Donne and Pope for wit. Yeats and Auden for poetry. Steinbeck for compassion. Franzen, Hollinghurst and Munro for how to do it in a contemporary context. A page or two of De Sade to banish the sanctimonious. Tolstoy and Dickens again and again for all the above and everything else. Shakespeare.

 

What are your other inspirations?
Bob Dylan. Paul Scholes. JS Bach. Gilles Villeneuve. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Schubert’s chamber music. Jungpana Darjeeling tea. The Greek philosophers. Caravaggio. Darwin. South Park. Murray Perahia. The Isle of Skye, Trastevere in Rome and St Petersburg in Russia. Mozart’s writing for the human voice. Jane Campion. Burgundy wine. Queen Elizabeth I. Stephen Isserlis. My brothers and sisters. Tom Waits. Anything cosmological. Lucian Freud and the NHS.

 

Give us a writing tip
Assume your readers to be intelligent and insightful people.

 

What, if anything, would you do differently if you were starting the book again?
Arrange to be paid by the hour.

 

What are you working on now?
A heartwarming Scandinavian thriller about a boy wizard/vampire who meets the same woman over and over again but cannot declare his love because he must remain disguised as a warhorse.

Q & A at Hay

 

1. How did you research the Devil’s Garden? Do you feel that visiting a place you are writing about is crucial for an author?

Personally, I find that there is no substitute for going to a place if you want to write about it. The word ‘author’ is quite close to the word ‘authenticity’ – and the more you know a place, the more time you can spend there, the more authentic your writing will become. Or at least that’s my experience. Other writers write well from maps and the imagination and so on. But I found that going to Russia for my second novel and going to the Amazon for this last one, really helped. And, well, it seems to me fairly obvious that more things will occur to you if you go: the story will flourish when it is more familiar with its setting. Plus … what’s not to like about traveling to write?!

2. You must have learned calligraphy in order to write about it. are you a calligrapher now too?

No, I was lucky – I travelled up to Yorkshire to see someone who was a professional calligrapher – he ran the Society of Scribes and Illuminators – and he taught me everything I needed to know. Afterwards, I was able to call him and ask him further details. Then I went back to check everything with him – when that novel was in final draft. It was a fascinating experience. I later found out that the SSi had fallen out with some other society of calligraphers and that there were schisms and tensions and splits. It reminded me of the python scene where John Clease shouts ‘splitters’. But, of course, in finding out about all this, I did start to have a different relationship with letters – a bit like Jasper in the novel does…

How has your life changed now that you’re full-time writer?

Yes, these days, I go to the artist’s enclave at the Hay Festival and do these Q and A’s whereas before I would tended not to get in and there would be security and fighting and tears and I’d often get thrown out and then when I used to tunnel back in they’d get mad and I’d be arrested and have to wrest control of the steering wheel in the police van and knock out the police officers and steal their uniforms and come back in by pretending to be security – it was exhausting and pretty dangerous at times.

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A conversation: Ten Questions with Edward Docx

In Conversation with Picador:

 

1. Can you summarise The Devil’s Garden in fifty words?

It is about love and corruption and ancient tribes and violence and grief and sex and science and religion and ants and anthropology and the clash between the individual and the big opposing forces of the twenty-first century. Most of all it’s about what lies hidden in the human heart.

2. What inspired you to write a novel set in the jungle? 

In a place called Puerto Maldonado in Peru, a woman told me a story about a scientist who disappeared in terrifying circumstances and that got me thinking…

3. How did you research this novel?

I went to the Amazon a couple of times. The first trip was with a friend and fellow writer. We met up in Lima and – after variously ill-advised diversions – we put ourselves in a small boat heading upriver. I remember I was suffering from a combination of sunstroke, dodgy malaria tablets and altitude sickness. Plus, I had been out until six in the morning. So I just lay in the bottom of the boat with my skin covered in this death-white sun block and a cheap leather hat over my face. When we got to the river station, there were these two German postgraduate students busy doing ant research right in the middle of all the bad stuff that was going on with the drugs and the logging and the tribes.

For the first day, I didn’t really see the jungle so much as hear it since I was lying in the dark. But even later, when I was able to explore with our guide, I had no idea that some kind of novel was forming in my subconscious. So, four years after that, when I began to write what became The Devil’s Garden, I knew I would have to go back and make some proper notes. The book eventually became a combination of the mildly hallucinogenic memories I had from the first trip and the detailed observations I took on the second – that time in Brazil.

As for the science, I began by reading the journals and various papers. Then I got in contact with the myrmecologists (ant-studying scientists) who are actually doing the work I describe in the book. I interviewed them and then stayed in touch so that we could speak or email as the writing progressed. A friend from Cambridge – also a myrmecologist – helped whenever I got stuck on things like reproduction.

4. Were there any stand-out moments?

Sleeping in the jungle in a hammock and watching the darkness turn slowly to the bluish-grey light of dawn in the canopy above me. Being left alone in the forest and trying unsuccessfully not to be afraid.

5. What was the hardest thing to write in The Devil’s Garden?

Love because, in this case, it was so intimate and so unspoken and beneath the surface and yet the subject is the most generally written about in all of history.

6. Would you call Forle [the main character in The Devil’s Garden] a hero?

I don’t know. That term is pretty hard to pin down these days. (I blame the literary theorists…) I suppose I wanted to mine that British tradition where the main guy has got it all going on unspoken beneath the surface. I wanted to get away – for a while at least – from the American vogue for forensic explanation and (what I think of as) photographic fiction. In different moods, I love and admire that stuff – and Self Help was emotionally exact and overt in that way. But its not the only thing that a novel can do – indeed, it may not even be what the novel is best at. I’m not sure. It’s important to think about these big questions some times. But it’s also important not to…

7. Like Sole, there are a lot of strong women in your books – where do they come from?

My mother is a strong woman. She had seven children and runs her own small classical music business. I have three sisters and we’re close. And then there are the few women whom I have loved in the past and the one I love most of all and with whom I share my life. None of them take any shit. I sometimes wish they did.

8. What do you read?

I read anything and everything – although I try to champion good writing as much as possible since the schlock already gets plenty of notice and there’s nothing wrong with sticking up the stuff that is well written.

I love a good memoir like Alexandra Fuller or Daniel Mendelsohn, or good genre like Stephen King or Martin Cruz Smith. Randomly, I listen to C J Sansom in the car because I like Anton Lesser’s reading voice. I just finished Even The Dogs by Jon Macgregor which someone sent me and which I admired greatly. And – actually – I’m interested in the blockbusters too – though mainly if I’m honest because I want to know what it is about those books that works so well in order that I can learn from it and get better myself.

I see myself as a student who is lucky enough to have a thousand of teachers instantly available on my shelf. And so it’s important to read the Browns and the Larssons and try to understand them. Indeed, I think the importance of reading can’t be overstated – any sort of reading. I think they should hand out novels for free at train stations since reading is surely the mark of a civilized mind and a civilized society – particularly the novel. The novel doesn’t rant at you or hector you or bother you or make you feel you should be like this, or like that, or go there, or come back, or act now, or stop acting now, or get this, or lose that, or be quicker or slimmer or happier or better or more connected, it doesn’t shout or scream or flash like a magazine or an app or an ad or so much that’s on the Internet, rather the novel offers you a conversation – a conversation with other generations, other places, other peoples and a conversation that respects your intelligence and admits of the most interesting and central subjects of existence: human psychology, human sensibility, human morality, human relationships, human truth. Nothing replaces that. And no other art form does it better.

9. OK, so name your five best modern novels…

Now we’re getting down to it. OK, so, it changes all the time, of course. But as of today and in no particular order I would say: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is a breathtaking technical masterpiece as well as being a triumph of the imagination in all the ways so justly celebrated. Alan Holinghurt’s Line of Beauty – for me he is the most elegant and all-round accomplished novelist in the UK and his last book had not a single slip of style or substance. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, which is truly staggering in terms of the sheer visceral energy and power of the writing and its great giddying Shakespearean reach; JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, which is, similarly, a novel of extraordinary force and resonance although achieved with a plain-song style so completely opposite to Roth that together they seem to me to represent the twin poles of what’s possible. Then I’d have to say Martin Amis’s London Fields because whether or not you like his novels, there is nobody writing in the English language who can turn a better sentence. Actually, I would have to include The Corrections, too, and The Shipping News. How many is that?

10.  The staff at the Amazon website in the US listed Self Help as one of their top books of the year and said that it was ‘the equal of better-known peers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen?’ Do you think that being well known is a major factor in success these days? How will you measure success with regard to The Devil’s Garden?

That’s a very complex question. But again the short answer is that a novel can be successful artistically (in that it’s well written and coheres) and/or it can be successful commercially (in that it is popular and sells). I always aim for the first, which I can control, and I hope for the second, which I can’t. As to the comparisons, I have never read any of Zadie Smith’s novels so I can’t really say about that – though I like the spirit in her essays whenever I come across them. And in my view, The Corrections was more or less a masterpiece, so I’m very happy and honoured and delighted by such things – though I’m not at all sure that they are justified. In any case, I hear Jamie Oliver is the biggest selling author in the UK. I met him once and we went to McDonalds together. Thirty minute meals – now that’s successful fiction.

 

Top 10 Deranged Characters

 

This first appeared in The Guardian:

Edward Docx’s first novel, The Calligrapher, was published to widespread acclaim in 2003 and has now been translated into eight languages. His second novel, Self Help, published in 2007, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and went on to win The Geoffrey Faber prize. In 2003 and then again in 2007, Docx travelled in South America as part of the research for his third novel, The Devil’s Garden, which is published this week.

“I have always preferred reading in the insightful company of lunatics. Sometimes, it’s a gradual Nabokovian thing – the unassuming reader and the engaging protagonist set off together and only gradually does the former begin to realise that the latter is a madman. And sometimes, as with Burgess, it’s all abundantly clear from the off.

Either way, the reason that there is such a great tradition of madness in literature is that it provides the author with a way to tell the terrible truth about the world while opening up a gap between what is superficially being narrated and what is really going on – adding depth, in other words. Of course, these characters encompass the same spectrum – from benign to dangerous – as the rest of humanity. But I love to read those apparently blank-faced and emotionally-cauterised protagonists – Camus, Greene – who seem to have to stand extra still in the narrative in case they accidentally detonate the fearsome rage of their true feelings. And fairly early on in the writing of The Devil’s Garden, I knew that my own protagonist wouldn’t make it to the end without ripping up the false floors that I had built to fireproof him from what burned below …”

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
All the greatest mad protagonists in modern western literature are descended either from Quixote or Hamlet. Undaunted by reality, Quixote is determined to believe the world is exactly as he declares it to be. He is not a delusional codger but a young chivalric knight, his lady is not the unwitting farm girl but the beautiful Dulcinea del Toboso and all those windmills are giants.

2. Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
“Stop it! Stop it, please, being a maniac!” So begs the lover of our hero, Mickey Sabbath, on page 21. Epic, vital, savage, relentless, insane, existentially incandescent, horrifying, excruciating, not funny, very funny, this is the great tragicomic howl of a madman at full Shakespearean tilt. One of the greatest novels written in my lifetime.

3. L’Etranger by Albert Camus
If sentiment and schmaltz were truly the twin tyrants of our age, then this book would no longer sell. A cold, emotionless man remains throughout utterly uninterested in his own life story – his mother’s death, his neighbour’s violent misogyny, his girlfriend, the murder he commits, his trial for that murder, the possibility of redemption or even his own humanity. And yet, from JM Coetzee to Brett Easton Ellis, Camus’s hero has become the modern archetype for the ostensibly distant protagonist who has it all going on beneath the surface.

4. Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol
A masterclass in the authorial management of derangement. Having locked himself in the padded cell of the first-person diary form (as written by a lowly clerk) Gogol simultaneously manages to allow the reader to peer through the jailer’s hatch and observe why his protagonist is mad and how the madness is worsening.

5. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
People hate this book. But, from the point of view of insane protagonists and formal invention, it is endlessly fascinating. It tells the story – backwards – of Odilo Unverdorben, a doctor whom we meet at the end of his life in America but who once worked in the concentration camps in Germany. Everything is in reverse: people become younger and smaller until they eventually squeeze back their mothers’ wombs where they finally cease to exist. Doctors cause injuries and blows heal. Pimps give money to hookers and lead them out of prostitution. A totally crazy book in every dimension.

6. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
All that is necessary here is to remind ourselves of the opening line: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” I can’t read the original German – “unruhigen” – but I love the translation into that word “uneasy”.

7. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
I know, I know: it’s the drugs. But you’d have to be mad to take that many at once and, anyway, the writing is irresistible: “I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'”

8. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov is the undisputed king of the charming, demented narrator. In Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote is ostensibly an academic ostensibly commentating on what is ostensibly his best friend’s poem. But it becomes slowly apparent that Kinbote actually believes himself to be Charles the Beloved, the exiled king of Zembla, a fairytale kingdom. And yet, Kinbote may not be Kinbote at all but an alter-ego of the insane Professor V Botkin, to whose delusions the ostensible poet, Shade, and his campus colleagues apparently pander.

9. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If ever there was An English Psycho then this is it – to my mind one of the most original novels ever written. Young Alex and his droogs (friends) go in for random and terrifying drug-fuelled rape, theft and murder to the soundtrack of Beethoven – “lovely lovely Ludwig Van”.  So disturbingly gleeful, too.

10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Not strictly a novel, I realise, but along with Quixote, the prince of Denmark is the other great figure whose ghost beckons all subsequent protagonists over the dreadful cliff. Is he but mad north-north-west? And when the wind is southerly does he know a hawk from a handsaw? We must forever be deciding. But how many other protagonists leap into open graves to grab their ex-jester’s skull and reminisce about the kisses they once shared?